Why are the main means by which urban dwellers avoid hunger ignored?

The issue of hunger in urban areas has long been neglected, as part of a more general neglect of urban poverty. And when the issue is covered, there are some glaring gaps in the analysis.

David Satterthwaite's picture
Blog by
5 October 2011

Children at an informal school in the Kibera area of Nairobi. Providing free education is one way to reduce urban poverty (Photo: Christy Gillmore, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Why do almost all discussions of food and nutrition in urban areas in Africa and Asia:

  • forget to mention that it is individuals’ and households’ inadequate or irregular incomes that are the main reason for hunger?
  • forget to ask urban dwellers who suffer hunger what their priorities are?
  • stress only urban or peri-urban agriculture as the solution when in every successful city, the possibilities of low-income groups getting access to agricultural land and water is very limited?

Some researchers and international agencies have begun to show more interest in food and nutrition in urban areas. This may have been spurred by data from many nations’ Demographic and Health Surveys that show the high proportion of children in urban areas who are underheight and/or underweight. For example, Siddharth Agarwal’s paper on the state of urban health in India and the paper by Marc Cohen and James Garrett on food insecurity in urban areas.

Low-incomes key to understanding hunger in urban areas

Almost all discussions of food and nutrition in urban areas in Africa and Asia forget to mention inadequate or irregular incomes as a cause of hunger. Many long, detailed and worthy publications on food and nutrition in urban areas do not even mention this – see for instance a recent paper on Food, Agriculture and Cities by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Those who face hunger are not part of the dialogue

In part, this is because policies are always set by ‘experts’ with no consultation with those who are meant to benefit from them. Worthy goals and principles are elaborated. Key global issues – the contribution of urban and peri-urban agriculture to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and the possibilities for integrating these into ecosystem service management – are stressed. But does any of this actually involve dialogue with the hungry local populations about their own priorities?

Wrong assumptions

Many recommendations by experts on food and nutrition seem to assume that municipal authorities are benign. But many municipal authorities refuse to work in informal settlements, even when these house 30-60% of their population (as they often do). And when and where they can, they bulldoze these settlements.

Is increasing urban food supply the solution?

Urban or peri-urban agriculture is often identified as the solution when in every successful city, the possibility of low-income groups getting access to land and water is very limited. This is why there are so many evictions and so much of the low-income population live squashed into a tiny proportion of the city’s land area.

It is also assumed that increased local food production, including urban agriculture, will reduce hunger – with little consideration of who actually gets the land and resources to engage in urban agriculture, and who benefits from the food and incomes produced.

If we accept that access to adequate food (and non-food needs) for most of the urban population depends on incomes earned in non-agricultural activities, then why is so little attention given to increasing their incomes?

Reducing hunger in urban contexts

So what helps low-income urban households avoid hunger? Better incomes and social and political changes pushed for or negotiated by organizations and federations of ‘slum’ or shack dwellers. These have relevance for alleviating hunger because these changes allow low-income groups to spend more money on food, and can reduce expenditure on non-food needs or provide more scope for earning more money.

There are many changes that help reduce hunger in urban areas that have little to do with food production:

  • Creating possibilities for low-income groups to organize, get their needs addressed and develop partnerships with local government
  • receiving good quality, affordable health care and getting ill less often
  • installing drainage to stop flooding
  • installing decent water and sanitation (preferably water piped into their homes and toilets in each home - saves money as water is cheaper than from vendors or kiosks, saves time and effort queuing and carrying, cuts diseases that rob the body of nutrition and the need for treatment and medicines)
  • setting up informal savings groups (where savings can be drawn on quickly when needed)
  • receiving social income (for instance the bolsa familia has contributed to better nutrition in Brazil)
  • not living under the constant threat of eviction (and, where possible, securing funding to upgrade their homes and settlements)
  • experiencing less harassment and demands
  • receiving electricity (which cuts risks of accidental fires and increases the scope for home-based income-earning opportunities)
  • improving public transport (can reduce time and monetary cost of getting to and from work and services; can also widen the area where income-earning opportunities can be found)
  • accessing good quality government schools: this often cuts household costs as people no longer need to pay school fees.

Of course, this does not mean that urban agriculture and peri-urban agriculture are unimportant. In many cities and smaller urban centres, these have importance for substantial proportions of low-income groups. But far more attention needs to be paid to the myriad other ways in which hunger can be reduced and how these can be supported, fast.

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